Dear Walt Disney Imagineering, Team Disney Anaheim, and whomever else it may concern,
Over the past several weeks I have been playing “Legends of Frontierland,” and despite an initial suspicion that this was all going to be a spectacular mess, the game has far and away exceeded anything I could have dreamed of. You guys have created a truly spectacular experience that is unlike anything I have ever seen before. That may sound like hyperbole, but I’m actually dead serious here. I have seen things that have similar elements to “Legends” – be they interactive theater pieces, alternate reality games, or live action role-playing games – but nothing that has combined them in this way or on this scale. This is a truly impressive thing, and it’s something that could even be revolutionary.
But I’m scared you guys are going to ruin it.
You see, this summer you have also introduced another game at Disneyland, a game called “Adventure Trading Company.” You can read all about why I’m less than a fan of that game, but suffice it to say that I find the experience too shallow. That’s not to say I actively dislike it, but I find the whole thing to be generally unengaging, and only worth anyone’s time based on the collectible merchandise. However, I do realize that the game is designed for tourists and day guests, and it’s clearly been a big hit with them. As I understand it, you guys are selling Jujus like crazy and guest response has generally been positive, and to that I say good on you. I personally am not terribly enthused by it, but neither am I bothered by it. If its target audience is loving it, than that is by all means great.
It’s this very success of “Trading Co.” that worries me, though. See, I’m worried that you guys are seeing the dollars that are pouring in from this game, and are looking at your other game, a game that is currently free to play, and wondering how you can make the same thing happen there. This is a mistake.
“Legends” and “Trading Co.” are designed for two distinctly different types of Disneyland guests. “Trading Co.” favors day guests and tourists with its simple premise, the short length of its expeditions, and a clear, tangible reward upon completion. It’s something with an obvious beginning, middle, and end that day guests can do in between running from ride to ride, and on that level it works. “Legends” is an entirely different animal. “Legends” is designed to be played out over multiple days, and even multiple weeks. The surface mechanic of the land dispute resets every day, but the characters and the world are persistent. It’s an experience that evolves over time and though it may not feature the same kind of obvious, tangible prize that “Trading Co.” has, it rewards players who can invest an extensive amount of time into living in this world and being a part of its community. The objectives of the game are more fuzzy, but that’s okay because the intent is different. It provides guests with a sandbox to play in, and opportunities to experience a story that grows over time. Obviously people from both camps can experience and enjoy both games, but the target audience for each is clearly different and requires different design sensibilities. However, if you introduce a pay to play mechanic in “Legends” you will fundamentally ruin the game.
The pay to play nature of “Trading Co.” works because you’re paying for individual quests that don’t bleed into one another, that can be done in any order, and don’t need to be repeated. Once you pay the $5 for one expedition you’re done with it, and you can either move onto the next for $5 or quit playing. You get in, pay your money, and then get out. “Legends” doesn’t work this way. “Legends” relies on players coming back time and time again. Now that we’re here in the later stages of the game, it is abundantly clear that the community of players that have been present for a significant period of time are the life blood that keeps the game running. These are the players that are promoting the game, helping to get new players involved, digging beyond the surface level mechanics and into the story that has been hidden underneath. Without these loyal, dedicated players, you don’t have a game. And do you want to know the fastest way to start alienating these players? By making them pay to continue playing the game.
Like I said, the game relies on players who are willing and able to return over multiple days and multiple weeks, it literally cannot function without them. If you start charging people to play the game, you will lose them. Perhaps not all at once, but the ones that don’t stop playing entirely will likely have to reduce the amount they are playing in order to afford it. Speaking for myself, as much as I love this game, as much as I’m compelled to keep coming back day after day (and I’ve probably visited Disneyland more in this past month than I’ve EVER done in such a short period of time), I would stop playing tomorrow if I had to pay. Because, you see, we are already paying to play. Those of us who are loyal players, your target audience, the ones that the game relies on to actually function properly, we’ve already bought annual passes. We’ve already spent roughly $700 to play. Granted, that’s not the only thing we bought the pass for, but I hope you can see why adding a charge for the game on top of that would be less than appealing.
Now I’ve heard statistics that say 60% of the players in the game are day guests. I’m not quite sure how you arrived at that number, but either way it’s awesome. It’s really fun seeing new people get involved, and watching them get into the game, even if they’re only in the park for a day or two, but even though they may be the majority of players in the game, the game still relies on that other 40% to function. Don’t get me wrong, the cast in the game is incredible, and they do a killer job interacting with guests and helping to guide them through the experience, but the persistent world and the community that makes the game so appealing comes from the interactions between the cast and those 40% of players who are coming on a regular basis.
All of that said, I know that you guys are wanting to find ways to monetize the game, and increase its profits, and I completely understand. Well, lucky for you, I happen to have a few suggestions on how to do just that without ruining this amazing thing you’ve created. First and foremost, you need to realize that the power of this game is in bringing guests into the park on a more consistent basis and increasing tangential sales, not in charging guests to play the game itself. Since I’ve had my Annual Pass this year I’ve visited the parks, on average, once a week. Since this game has started, though, I’ve been visiting two, three, or more times a week, and I’m not the only one. I’ve spoken with several people who have said that they’ve been coming on a more consistent basis for the purpose of playing this game than they ever have before. This game is a powerful draw for people, and you can use that to leverage food and merchandise sales in the area while still keeping the game free to play.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect you’re already seeing this with food sales in the Golden Horseshoe. Speaking from personal experience, when I’m playing the game and I want to grab a bite to eat, I don’t want to leave the game and walk to a restaurant in another part of the park, I want to stay in the world of the game. The Golden Horseshoe happens to be right there, it happens to be air conditioned, and it happens to feature a fun show that ties into the game. I’ve eaten at the Golden Horseshoe more in the past month than I’ve probably ever eaten there, and since the game began, it’s ALWAYS packed to the gills. Again, I may be wrong, but I would be shocked if food sales weren’t way up in Frontierland, specifically in the Golden Horseshoe.
In addition to that, you also have a great opportunity for compelling merchandise. I understand that the game is still technically in beta, but I’m a bit surprised that there’s no merchandise available that coincides with this game. Granted, you do have the cowboy gear and the orange and yellow bandannas, but none of them are specific to the game. If instead of selling generic orange and yellow bandannas that can be found at any craft store, you sold bandannas emblazoned with the emblems of Frontierland and Rainbow Ridge*, I suspect more people would be interested in buying them (I know I would). There’s clearly demand for merchandise specific to the game; if you need evidence look no further than the custom badges that my friend Nick Tierce made.
He made this himself, and in the short time I spent with him that day I saw no less than ten people express their interest in it. If you guys sold something similar, even for $10, $15 bucks a pop, you would make a killing! I’ve been happy to see merchandise in Disneyland move more towards location specific items this year, and “Legends” creates a whole new category of merchandise options that, if well designed and smartly tied into the game, could be huge.
That’s the thing about monetization in games. Any monetization options need to enhance the experience for people who are paying for them without penalizing the people who are not. Extra Credits has a couple of really great episodes on this topic (here and here), and they’re well worth checking out. Merchandise options like Nick’s customized name badges do exactly that. Even L.B.’s Elixir cart you’ve introduced into the game tiptoes right up to that line without crossing it. The thing you don’t want to do, though, is fragment your community or force players to pay in order to progress through the game. If, for instance, you couldn’t get certain information without buying the knowledge elixir, that would be bad monetization, but making information easier to obtain with the elixir incentivizes the drink without making it impossible for those who don’t want to pay for that same information.
The bottom line is that I’ve grown to love this game a lot. I’ll get into this more when I write my reflective column in a few weeks or so, but this has been a really special experience and it’s created memories that I will cherish forever. This all sounds sappy and schmaltzy, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Despite anything else that I may be frustrated about in the parks, despite the fact that there are still a few kinks left to iron out in the game, it’s been a truly remarkable thing to be a part of. I’m going to miss the game terribly once it ends, and eagerly await its return, and I sincerely hope you take this letter to heart. I would be more than happy to spend money on your game as long as you’re not punishing me if I don’t.
Legend of Rainbow Ridge
*P.S. I know that you already have custom bandannas for the people who achieve the rank of Legend, and they’re awesome, but perhaps a different, less elaborate design could be used for the retail bandannas.